Name Recognition Amy Sherald discusses life since the Obama portrait.

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Portrait unveiling of former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., Feb. 12, 2018.
Photo by Pete Souza

Before this year, Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald was well-known to those in the contemporary art world. The MICA graduate bested 2,500 competitors to win the 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition and she had paintings hanging in the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

But that was 2017. When Sherald removed the sheet from her oil-on-linen portrait of Michelle Obama on Feb. 12, Sherald’s fame lost its qualifier. She was no longer art-world-famous: She was famous.

Now going to the grocery store means “having people asking to take selfies” with her, Sherald says. “I didn’t foresee myself being a celebrity,” sh admits. “But the level of success has been something I’ve been
trying to project for myself for a long time.”

And even though she finds it “weird to lose [her] anonymity,” Sherald remains open and honest about the obstacles she’s overcome — including a heart transplant six years ago — and the work she’s put in to reach her goals. “You realize how much sharing your story affects other people’s lives in a positive way.”

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama by Amy Sherald, oil on linen, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Sherald says she wasn’t entirely surprised by the reaction to the unveiling. When First Lady and President Obama revealed they’d selected Sherald and Kehinde Wiley to paint their portraits, respectively, they signaled a departure from the traditional. Both artists’ thoroughly modern approach to presidential portraiture generated more buzz than any other presidential portraits in modern history.

“I feel as if I’ve been preparing myself for this for a very long time,” Sherald says. “You kind of know it’s going to be a media circus, because it’s the Obamas. And you know there’s going to be a lot of criticism because people have expectations of what they think the portrait should look like.”

While there have been some negative postings on her website, there has also been widespread praise and even a visit between Mrs. Obama and one young, starstuck fan.

Since the unveiling, Sherald says she has been “bombarded with emails,” but has been laying low. “It’s a relief to let [the painting] be out [in the public eye,]” she says. “And not have to carry the pressure of making it anymore.”

But she can’t pause too long. Next up is a solo show at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Other projects are percolating as well. Indeed, living in Baltimore for the past 15 years has broadened the scope of Sherald’s work from its original, autobiographical roots to addressing social issues, she says.

No doubt her reprieve from the spotlight will be a brief one.

Visitors can find Sherald’s painting in the National Portrait Gallery’s “Recent Acquisitions” exhibition until Nov. 4.

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